School shutdowns border on the irrational

I’m not quick to label approaches to dealing with the Wuhan coronavirus irrational. For example, I don’t think it was irrational for Norway to institute a lockdown last Spring or for Sweden not to do so. Both were rational responses to a novel crisis.

Similarly, I don’t think it’s irrational now, with the virus spreading again so rapidly, to impose heightened restrictions in some areas for a few months until vaccines become widely available. Nor is it irrational not to do so.

These decisions involve tradeoffs. When that’s the case, the worst one usually can say about a choice is that it’s misguided, not irrational.

Accordingly, I’m reluctant to label school shutdowns irrational. However, I think that, in general, they so misguided as to come close to defying rationality.

A reader from Northern Virginia writes:

At the beginning of the school year, [students in the Arlington Public School (APS)] were supposed to return to school with options to accommodate the safety concerns of students, teachers, and school staff. However, the plan sits in limbo with a promise to consider options again in Mid-January 2021.

Nobody is fooled by this promise and parents now see that schools will not be opening anytime soon. Since one of the criteria for re-opening is teacher buy-in, the plan has no hope. Currently, only 39 percent of APS teachers are willing to return to the classroom even for hybrid instruction with appropriate safety precautions and safety options for those with special health concerns.

In other words, schools remain shut not because of an analysis of tradeoffs — protection from the virus vs. the need to educate students in person — but because of a veto by teachers.

Our reader continues:

The school district points to a set of public health metrics (a dashboard) that seem unlikely to be met anytime in the next year (or perhaps ever). In fact, some of the metrics could not have been met even in the pre-COVID era, such as area hospital capacity. [Note: Our reader informs me that after he sent his email to me, the APS superintendent changed the hospital-occupancy metric to a more attainable level.]

The result is that students are stuck on their computer screens for 7 hours per day without any in-person contact with their teachers or peers. APS claims this to be a tremendous success because attendance is high, but the fact of the matter is that virtual-only instruction is a poor substitute for in-person instruction or hybrid instruction.

I haven’t talked to a single parent of a child doing all of his or her learning online who believes that the education being received is satisfactory.

But is the teachers’ veto rooted in rational health concerns? Seemingly not:

APS claims they are “following the science” but parents are not fooled because they know that APS conveniently ignores peer-reviewed research that fails to support their position. The newly formed advocacy group Arlington Parents for Education provides a list on their website of some of the research the school district chooses to ignore:

The links, a few dozen of them, are collected here.

Our reader points to the experience in Europe, which, in general, has been every bit as inclined as the U.S. to give predominate weight in its decisionmaking to preventing spread of the virus:

[W]hile Britain has recently implemented a “circuit breaker” lockdown due to COVID, they have managed to keep schools open. I understand that the same is true in France.

That’s right. According to this article from NPR:

Across Europe, schools and child care centers are staying open even as much of the continent reports rising coronavirus cases, and even as many businesses and gathering places are shut or restricted. Countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy appear to be following the emerging evidence that schools have not been major centers of transmission of the virus, especially for young children. And experts say these nations are also demonstrating a commitment to avoiding the worst impacts of the pandemic on children.. . . .

Johannes Huebner, the head of the pediatric infectious disease department at the Ludwig-Maximilians University Hospital in Munich, recently told NPR correspondent Rob Schmitz that scientific studies have not detected high rates of transmission in schools. “Most of the infections are brought into the schools by adults, by teachers, and then spread among kids. But most of the time, it’s only single cases. It’s two, three kids, five maybe that get positive.”

(Emphasis added)

The same is true in the U.S. Joe Nocera points out:

[In] New York City, which tragically shut down its school system on Thursday after having opened schools to hybrid learning in late September. Did Mayor Bill de Blasio make the decision to close them because they were suddenly COVID-19 hotspots? No.

Although the citywide positivity rate has risen above 3%, the rate of infection in the schools was astonishingly low: 0.15%. Kids were not infecting teachers, and teachers weren’t infecting students — just as study after study had suggested would be the case.

Moreover, school age children will almost never suffer serious health effects in the very unlikely event they become infected.

The difference between school closure policy in the U.S. and Europe has nothing to do with “the science” or with reasonable tradeoff decisions. It has everything to do with the power of teachers’ unions.

Our reader adds a personal note:

As the father of a high school senior, I see first-hand the social anxiety that has resulted from students being isolated from their peers. I see the frustration and helplessness that students currently feel from having high school rites of passage denied to them.

From what I see and hear, these growing feelings of despair are widespread among high school seniors in Arlington County. I fear that APS is not appropriately considering the mental health toll that is resulting from student isolation caused by closed schools. Moreover, requests to meet counselors one-on-one in the school by appointment and with full safety precautions, have been declined. The schools are locked down tight.

I know many parents who are eager to help reopen our schools safely. They would welcome the opportunity to raise money or serve in volunteer roles to ensure safety for students and staff in re-opened schools. These offers have been rebuffed by the school district.

(Emphasis added)

One likely outcome of the public school lockdown is a permanent decline in enrollment. Our reader notes that in Arlington, school enrollments have declined 4.5 percent over the past year even though they were projected to increase this year. Public school enrollments are also down in Montgomery County, where I live.

Declining enrollment likely means a proportionate decrease in state funding. Public schools are shooting themselves in the foot by closing down.

More importantly, they are harming their students — permanently. As the NPR article explains, studies show that missing months of school lowers a child’s chances of graduating from high school. This, in turn, lowers life expectancy because people with less education are more likely to smoke, more likely to drink heavily, more likely to suffer from heart disease, and more likely to perform more hazardous work.

These impacts may well prove to be the most lasting impact of the Wuhan coronavirus in the U.S.

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